Kidnapping a baby dolphin to save a pod – an ethical dilemma? Or not?

Staying on the subject of marine mammal strandings, here’s an interesting series of events that took place at the Two Peoples Bay Nature Reserve in Western Australia. Initial reports on 2 February this year indicated that between 100 and 150 pantropical spotted dolphins were milling about in knee deep water. One of the dolphins was dead.

In order to herd the pod out into deeper water, and avert a potential mass stranding, officials removed a baby dolphin from the pod and transported it into deeper water. Its distress cries attracted the attention of the remainder of the pod, who then swam out into deeper water to where the calf was, joined it, and subsequently out to sea. They were not seen again.

I think this is a fascinating and incredibly innovative solution to what is usually a very upsetting problem and one that rarely has good outcomes. Do you think the end (saving up to 150 dolphins from stranding on a beach) justified the means (causing temporary distress to a young dolphin, its mother, and the rest of the pod)?

Media releases from Western Australia’s Department of Environment and Conservation:

Article(s): Newsweek on the future of ocean exploration

Newsweek recently published two articles on the exploration of the ocean.

The first concerns Sylvia Earle and Robert Ballard, both pioneers of ocean exploration. Ballard favours unmanned Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) allowing so-called “telepresence” in the deep ocean by humans, while Earle favours putting actual humans in the ocean as opposed to robots. Aside from the deeper issues it raises, it’s an excellent potted biography of both these eminent ocean explorers, as well as an introduction to the mechanisms available to us when plumbing the sea’s greatest depths.

Ballard’s thoughts on the subject of exploration – and the trajectory of funding – are explained like this:

“The body is a pain,” says Robert Ballard, the marine geologist who discovered the Titanic, striking a common note about the problems with manned travel. “It has to go to the bathroom. It has to be comfortable. But the spirit is indestructible. It can move at the speed of light.”

For two decades, he’s been arguing the virtues of “telepresence” technology: remotely controlled subs and rovers, pumping video to an unlimited number of researchers worldwide. This year he seems to have finally closed the conversation. While the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) pulled money from manned exploration, Ballard’s telepresence efforts comprise “the only federal program dedicated to systematic exploration of the planet’s largely unknown ocean,” according to NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

The second article is a response by director James Cameron to Robert Ballard’s assertion that unmanned submersibles are the future of ocean exploration. Cameron visited Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, nearly 11 kilometres deep, in March 2012. His view is that

No kid ever dreamed of growing up to be a robot. But they do dream of being explorers. And inspiring young minds and imaginations is one of the most important things we can be doing if we want a future supply of engineers and scientists insuring our lead in innovation.

Andrew Thaler of Southern Fried Science (the best ocean-related blog I read) wrote an eloquent summation and response to both these articles. His assertion is that there is actually very little distinction between manned and unmanned ocean exploration, particularly at the extreme depths that the Deepsea Challenge expedition operated at (and at depths much less than that, too). Cameron did not look out of a viewport or window in his submersible; he viewed the output of an array of 3D cameras, on a screen, from inside the sub. Thaler makes his point convincingly:

Technology doesn’t create explorers, explorers create technology. Any tool, from Wormcam to Alvin, that provides a glimpse into the wonderful unknown, is a tool worth having.

It is the ocean that inspires us. Everything else is hardware.

His point is that to get caught up in what is very nearly a purely semantic discussion over which form of exploration has greater virtue and potential is to miss the point that funding is lacking and political will to explore the ocean is low. Perhaps one day, when we’re knee deep in ROVs and manned submersibles, we can have this discussion again. For now – anything that assists people to see what’s under the sea is a good thing.

Article: Wired on keeping the Netherlands dry

When we travelled to Europe last year, Tony and I flew to Amsterdam and then drove through the Netherlands and Germany into Denmark. We purposely chose a route that was interesting (to us) – our first priority being to see how the entrepid people of the Netherlands keep their country from being overrun by the ocean. About a fifth of the country’s land lies below sea level, so ingenuity is required.

In the picture below, you can see part of the North Sea called the Waddenzee on the right, and (just) the IJsselmeer on the left.  The IJsselmeer is a shallow, man-made lake of fresh water, only 5-6 metres deep. The road shown is the A7/E22 on this map. It is a causeway called the Afsluitdijk, which is about 30 kilometres long, keeping the North Sea out and the IJsselmeer in (if the capitalisation of IJ annoys you, read this).

A sea wall in the Netherlands
A sea wall in the Netherlands

At each end of the causeway are discharge gates to allow freshwater to be released from the IJsselmeer, which has no other outlet and is continually fed by rivers including the Rhine. At low tide, the level of the lake is higher than that of the sea, so gravity can drain the water from behind the causeway. If sea levels rise, this won’t be the case any more.

I found an article on from a few years back that explains how the Dutch are planning for the future -200 years ahead – by embarking on a $1.5 billion per year (for the next 100 years) project of strengthening, extending and constructing sea walls, sluices and other defences against rising sea levels.  It’s a fascinating read about how a small (but wealthy) country is tackling its peculiar challenges head on, long before they arise. There are many lessons here (specially for climate-change denialists).

An interesting aside is that the Dutch political model, so-called polder politics, may have derived its name and nature from the need to protect the sea walls at all costs, leading to consensus-based politics that started with the crucial issue of protecting the polders (areas of land enclosed by dykes) and extended to broader issues too.

Read the full article here.


Article: Wired on running away to sea

The topic of establishing a floating utopia, free of the strictures of governments, is one that humanity (and I) keeps returning to. I posted a link to an interesting summary published in the Daily Maverick, and then just recently came across an old (2009) article from about “seasteading” (like “homesteading”, if the word sounds weird to you).

The Seasteading Institute is a non-profit organisation that was started in 2008 (and is still in existence) in order to facilitate thought and research about the legal, techonolgical, social and other challenges that will have to be addressed in order to make a sustainable floating ocean “country” a reality. The founders believe that competition in government, and the creation of new, “start-up governments” to run these floating entities will be a good thing for humanity.

A browse through the Seasteading Institute website reveals that they are deadly serious about their aims, and view seasteading as one of the profitable entrepreneurial activities of the future. There is even an award, the Poseidon Award for the first financially self-sufficient seastead with 50 or more residents.

While the idea of living on the ocean appeals, I’d like to be able to choose whom I share that space with. I am intrigued and inspired, however, by the disruptive and creative thinking that is demonstrated by those who are working seriously to make self-governing ocean habitats a reality.

Read the full article here.

Protection of wrecks in South Africa

The issue of protection for local shipwrecks has come to the fore in the last two weeks when it became apparent that huge quantities (18 tonnes of steel this week, much brass last week) of metal have been removed from the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg which lies just a kilometre from Miller’s Point. Divers are up in arms at the destruction of one of Cape Town’s most popular wreck dives, as are some who feel that because of the ship’s history, it should be left alone.

Metal salvaged from the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty at Simon's Town
Metal salvaged from the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty at Simon’s Town

Shipwrecks in South Africa are protected under the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) of 1999. The act protects wrecks as archaeological sites, but only wrecks that are more than 60 years old. This would include a wreck like the SS Maori, but not a wreck as recent as the BOS 400 or any of the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks – or, unfortunately, the SAS Pietermaritzburg (the wreck is under 20 years old, even though the ship itself is over 60).

Pieces of the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty
Pieces of the SAS Pietermaritzburg on the jetty

The crucial definition (found in that section of the NHRA) relating to shipwrecks is this one:

archaeological” means: wrecks, being any vessel or aircraft, or any part thereof, which was wrecked in South Africa, whether on land, in the internal waters, the territorial waters or in the maritime culture zone of the Republic, as defined respectively in sections 3, 4 and 6 of the Maritime Zones Act, 1994 (Act No. 15 of 1994), and any cargo, debris or artefacts found or associated therewith, which is older than 60 years or which SAHRA considers to be worthy of conservation;

The act thus defines shipwrecks older than 60 years, and associated debris, as archaeological sites, which are to be administered and conserved by SAHRA (The South African Heritage Resource Agency). The regulations pertaining to treatment of archaeological sites are enumerated in Part 2, Section 35 item 4 of the NHRA, which states that no person may, without the relevant permits,

a) destroy, damage, excavate, alter, deface or otherwise disturb any archaeological or palaeontological site or any meteorite;

b) destroy, damage, excavate, remove from its original position, collect or own any archaeological or palaeontological material or object or any meteorite;

c) trade in, sell for private gain, export or attempt to export from the Republic any category of archaeological or palaeontological material or object, or any meteorite; or

d) bring onto or use at an archaeological or palaeontological site any excavation equipment or any equipment which assist in the detection or recovery of metals or archaeological and palaeontological material or objects, or use such equipment for the recovery of meteorites.

The wikivoyage site on diving in South Africa has a useful summary.

How does this apply to the Pietermaritzburg?

The SAS Pietermaritzburg was scuttled in 1994, and is thus nowhere near 60 years old. These legal protections do not apply to it. This means that you will not face a fine or prison term for removing artefacts or other items from the vessel. I imagine that some kind of permit is required to perform the salvage that is currently taking place on the wreck, but unfortunately it looks as though this permit has been issued which allows the work to go ahead.

What to do?

Attend the meeting advertised below (it’s next week), write letters to the newspaper and to the Simon’s Town Civic Association (they will forward them to the relevant authorities), and make your opinions heard! We’ll be at the meeting, and will report back on the proceedings:

It has been brought to the attention of the Society and the Civic Association that a salvor has been cutting and recovering steel from the wreck of the SAS Pietermaritzburg. This ship was scuttled off Miller’s Point to act as an artificial reef. Apart from serving the South African Navy for many years the Pietermaritzburg, originally named HMS Pelorus, led the D-Day Invasion fleet on the 6th June 1944. Many feel that in the light of this ship’s history it should be left as is.

In order for a provisional protection order to be placed on the wreck it requires a meeting to be held at which the public must express their desire in this respect. A meeting will therefore be held at the Simon’s Town Museum on Monday 30th July at 17h30 to which all interested parties are invited.

Article: Wired on Sealand

I’ve been trying to find this Wired magazine article for a while – I first read it years ago. Sealand is a World War II anti-aircraft platform (or “sea fort”) in the North Sea, 10 kilometres off the coast of Great Britain. It was established as an independent nation (with its own passports and coinage) nearly 50 years ago by the Bates family, but is not recognised as such by any other sovereign state.

The article describes the establishment of HavenCo in late 2000, an offshore data haven (basically a location equipped with massive computing power and internet connectivity that would host websites whose content is illegal in certain jurisdictions – such as online gambling sites and the website for the Tibetan nation, which for obvious reasons can’t be hosted in China). HavenCo ceased operation in 2008, but the state of Sealand still exists (albeit in a much diminished state).

There’s something incredibly romantic about a private island – granted this isn’t the kind of island Richard Branson spends the summers on, but the brisk sales of Sealand merchandise (including titles such as Baron and Baroness) indicates that I’m not alone in being slightly bewitched by this idea.

The website for Sealand can be found here. There’s a bit about whether Sealand really is a sovereign state in this article.

Click here to read the Wired article.

If this kind of thing interests you, I’d strongly recommend Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (available here for Kindle and here if you’re not in South Africa). Most of the time it’s my favourite book in the whole world.

Letter for sharks – follow up

A few months back I wrote to both the Minister of Environmental Affairs (Edna Molewa) and the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Tina Joemat-Pettersson) regarding shark finning activity and trade in South African waters, and the protection of broadnose sevengill cowsharks. I received a letter acknowledging receipt of my letter from one of the ministers (it was so exciting I’ve forgotten which one – I think it was from Ms Molelwa’s office).

In a stroke of genius (I think), prompted largely by following Helen Zille on Twitter and seeing how engaged and responsive many of her minions are, I also wrote to the DA Shadow Ministers with the portfolios mentioned above. These Shadow Ministers have no ministerial powers as such, but are assigned to particular portfolios and as opposition MPs generally give their corresponding government ministers a hard time.

Gareth Morgan, the Shadow Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, was so good as to put my concerns to the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries (Ms Joemat-Petterson) in a Q&A in parliament. Her response was the following:





Question 3225 for written reply: National Assembly, Mr G R Morgan (DA) to ask the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries:

(1)   Whether there is any (a) legislation or (b) regulations that prohibit shark finning; if not, why not; if so, what are the relevant details;

(2)   whether she intends to ban the (a) sale, (b) export, (c) import of shark fins and (d) any other products derived from shark fins; if not, why not; if so, what are the relevant details;

(3)   whether her department intends placing Broadnose Sevengill Cow sharks under a similar protection afforded to white sharks; if not, why not; if so, what are the relevant details? NW3837E


(1)   Yes. Shark finning, in other words the removal of fins and discarding of the shark trunks at sea is currently prohibited in fisheries where such practices have occurred or are likely to occur. Due to the high value of pelagic sharks caught by the Large Pelagic Longline Fishery, fishers are encouraged to land sharks with fins attached. If fins are not attached to the trunks then the dressed-weight ration shall not exceed 8% of trunk weight. Conditions attached to the issuing of permits regulate the afore-mentioned.

(2)   Currently there is no intention by the Department to ban the sale, export, or import of shark fins and other products derived from shark fins. The FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) developed in 1998 an International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA-Sharks) within the framework of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries to which South Africa is a signatory. The objective of the IPOA-Sharks is to ensure the conservation and management of sharks and their long-term sustainable use, with the following specific aims: The IPOA-Sharks calls for maximum use of dead sharks, therefore whilst sharks are being targeted or caught as by-catch, all products including fillets, cartilage and fins will be utilized.

If research indicates that the finning of sharks is a common occurrence then the legislation regarding finning will be re-examined.

(3)   The department is looking into the feasibility and consequences of placing the Broadnose Sevengill Cow Sharks under similar protection afforded to White Sharks. Currently there is no scientific evidence to suggest that Broadnose Sevengill Cow Sharks are overexploited. However, as the value of the fillets is low it might be argued that a greater usage of Broadnose Sevengill Cow Sharks would be for the eco-tourism market where animals may bring in considerable income if responsibly and safely managed.

Other concerns include the accumulation of mercury and other metals. Mercury is bio-accumulated and concentrated through the aquatic food chain especially in large predatory fish such as Broadnose Sevengill Cow Sharks. Mercury exposure has been linked to neurological diseases and cardiovascular effects in adults, and mental retardation and cerebral palsy-like symptoms in newborn infants exposed to MeHg through the placenta. On the other hand, reported catches of Broadnose Sevengill Cow Sharks are currently low (<5 t per year) and do notappear to be unsustainable. These catches provide consistent data for long-term analysis. If catches of Broadnose Sevengill Cow Sharks are stopped, the ability to monitor the long-term abundance of cow sharks are decreased. All these factors need to be included in such a decision.

This is not particularly encouraging news, and there’s a distinct lack of concern evident here. However. This gives direction to future lobbying (read: harrassing government ministers by mail) efforts. Please feel free to write your own letters on any aspect of this that you feel strongly about. The more pressure that is exerted to obtain protection for sharks in South African waters, the better. You can even put on your bikini while you type your letter… I won’t judge!

Letter for sharks

I did something (little) for sharks today. Instead of making sure someone with a camera was nearby, putting on a bikini and attaching myself to the dorsal fin of an unfortunate shark, I wrote a letter. It’s not a particularly eloquent letter, and might get lost in the mail room. It might even be completely misdirected – but it’s one of the things that it’s within my power to do.

Minister of Environmental Affairs: Ms Edna Molewa
Private Bag X447

Dear Minister Molewa

It is very encouraging and a source of great pride to me that South Africa is one of the few countries to specifically protect great white sharks in our waters. Sharks are essential to the functioning of a healthy ecosystem. As top predators they are vulnerable because they reach reproductive maturity only when they are several years old, they reproduce slowly and they face many threats from humans.

Shark finning

I would like to respectfully ask that your office consider enacting legislation to prevent shark finning (the practice of catching sharks, cutting off their fins, and discarding the rest of the animal – often when it is still alive) in South African waters by both South African and foreign-registered vessels. I would also like to ask that you consider banning the sale, import, and export of shark fins and any products derived from shark fins in South Africa.

Shark finning is a wasteful, brutal activity that leads to the death of millions of sharks every year. In banning it we would be joining a growing number of countries that recognize that sharks have far greater value alive than dead. This is not only because of their contribution to maintaining the health of the marine ecosystem, but because they have significant ecotourism potential. The large number of shark cage diving operations in False Bay, Mossel Bay and Gansbaai attest to this – and there are at least eleven species of sharks found in South African waters, so this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as tourism potential goes.

Broadnose sevengill cowsharks

I would further like to request that your office consider placing broadnose sevengill cowsharks under the same kind of protection as that enjoyed by great white sharks in South Africa. These peaceful, beautiful creatures are found along our south and west coast and are frequently caught by anglers. Some of the less ethical shark cage diving operations even use cowshark livers in their chum mixture.

It is possible to scuba dive and free dive with these sharks in False Bay, and on visiting the site we often see the sharks with large hooks stuck in their mouths. These hooks impede feeding and hunting activity and must cause the animal considerable pain. Diving with the cowsharks is an activity treasured by local divers, and brings tourists from overseas to our shores. Please protect these sharks so that future generations can also enjoy the privilege we currently have of interacting with them freely.

Thank you for your attention on this matter.

Yours faithfully

Clare Lindeque

cc: Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries: Ms Tina Joemat-Petterson, Private Bag X250, Pretoria, 0001

Perhaps the bikini method works best, but I don’t seem to have enough of the tart in me today…